WNBA Today, 06/10/2012: Western hierarchy maintained

Just two WNBA games last night, after the exertions of quintuple-game Friday. It was an all-Western evening, and neither game required paying much attention in the fourth quarter. Which was a good thing, considering Game 7 of the Miami-Boston NBA series was going on simultaneously, and LiveAccess had some unfortunate issues. Just occasionally, everything falls into place.

First up, the game that might actually have some impact on playoff positioning (and even qualification) somewhere down the line. Seattle were in San Antonio, looking to find a win that might jump-start their season. After the Storm’s obituary was prompted by their capitulation in Minnesota on Wednesday night, maybe they could start afresh and find some new life. The Silver Stars have hardly been tearing up the league themselves, and were coming off a tough, physical loss the night before in Atlanta. In fact, the Storm had been in San Antonio waiting for them for a couple of days, and should’ve been the fresher team despite being on the road.

Both teams kept faith with the starting lineups they’ve used in recent games. Seattle opened the contest encouragingly, finding Ann Wauters and Camille Little in the low post for finishes in the paint on two of their first three possessions. Given how few inroads the Storm had made down low in recent games, it was nice to see them get the ball inside early.

Unfortunately for the Storm, that was as good as it got in the first quarter. San Antonio were making everything, whether outside jumpers or on penetration and layups. They were even getting every call from the officials, although having an attack mentality and speed within your offense inevitably leads to whistles going in your favour. A 17-2 run for the Silver Stars built a 21-7 lead.

While many of their most obvious issues have been on offense this year, Seattle’s defense also isn’t what it used to be. Wauters simply isn’t as mobile as Lauren Jackson, and isn’t anywhere near as comfortable in the Storm’s defensive system. It leads to slow rotations and inadequate help right at the core of the defense, which makes everyone else look bad. Danielle Robinson, for example, is far too quick for Bird, but part of Bird’s style defensively has always been to funnel opponents towards where she knows her help will be. She can’t cope herself, but she can at least push people in the right direction. That doesn’t work without teammates behind her in the right positions, who can slide over quickly. Wauters is at least a step slow, and it throws everyone else off.

Offensively, while it seems ridiculous considering they fell behind by double-digits in the opening period, the Storm seemed a little improved in the first half. They were moving better, and finding some open shots – San Antonio were just hitting a lot more of them. To paraphrase Jeff Van Gundy, sometimes it’s just a “make or miss league”. Shameka Christon, Danielle Robinson and others were making for the Silver Stars; Wauters, Tanisha Wright and Sue Bird were missing a hell of a lot for the Storm.

Some of the problems for Seattle’s offense are a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy. They know they’re struggling, and especially when a few efforts don’t drop early on, they start forcing things or rushing shots. The expectation that they’re going to struggle and knowledge that they’ve been poor offensively is in turn causing them to screw up. It’s a vicious circle that’s tough to break.

The Storm finally put a run together in the second quarter, as Bird produced her first points of the night and they threw a little zone at the Silver Stars to shake things up. It’s hard to remember Seattle playing a single possession of zone defense during their dominant 2010 season, but this is a different team and desperate times call for desperate measures. It created a couple of steals, played its part in a 10-0 Storm run, and forced San Antonio coach Dan Hughes into a timeout. Shenise Johnson immediately hit a three right over the top of the zone on the very next play, and Storm coach Brian Agler went back to his standard system.

41-30 at halftime, the Storm were hanging around despite shooting a far lower percentage than the Silver Stars. It was a seven-point game at 43-36 in the early stages of the second half, and if Seattle could’ve just started to make some shots they could’ve made it a game.

So many possessions in the professional game involve pick and rolls, and while it’s often referred to as “the two-man game” it’s often a third player that ends up left open, especially in women’s basketball. A third defender typically slides across or fades back towards the basket in order to offer cover on the screener who’s rolling to the basket. That leaves the offensive player that third defender was supposed to be guarding open to receive a pass. Part of the problem for Seattle is that they’re settling for feeding that third option too often. It’s a pass you’re ‘supposed’ to make in a lot of situations – how many coaches repeatedly tell their players to ‘find the open man’? – and then a shot you’re supposed to take if you’re open. But you’re still firing from long range, which in a lot of cases makes it a fairly low-percentage shot even if you’re open. There aren’t enough Storm possessions that end with passes to a cutter, or the player rolling to the hoop off a screen. Too often it’s a rotation pass to that perimeter option, who jacks up a jump shot. Which then clanks off the rim. It’d be fine if they had an array of players shooting around 40% from three-point range, as they did in 2010. That’s not even close to being the case this year, so it’s simply resulting in a lot of empty possessions.

Ultimately, Seattle couldn’t hold on to San Antonio’s coattails in the third and fourth quarters, and the game went away from them. Danielle Adams came in and knocked down some shots, embarrassingly going right by Wauters on a couple of occasions. Wauters hasn’t looked nearly as good in the WNBA this year as she has in Europe, where there are fewer hyper-athletic players to deal with on a game-by-game basis. But she ought to be able to keep up with Adams. The San Antonio lead was up to 16 by the end of the third quarter, and broke 20 several times in the fourth. Only a few meaningless Storm buckets in the final minute dragged it down as close as the 80-67 final scoreline.

The telling statistics for the Storm were their 36% shooting from the floor, and the basic fact that they took 30 shots from beyond the arc (out of only 66 total). Only Tina Thompson (2-6) and Shekinna Stricklen (2-5) made more than one triple, and the starting backcourt of Bird and Wright were a combined 2-13 from outside. That’s horrible. It makes them so easy to defend as well, because the undersized Silver Stars can simply fade back into the paint and double-team anyone down low, conceding the three-pointer if Seattle want to take it. Obviously you rotate out to challenge as much as possible, but right now there’s a fair chance that any Storm player will miss the three regardless of defensive pressure. And they’re not dropping the ball inside anywhere near enough to compensate.

Sue Bird’s trying to attack and score to help carry her underperforming team, but it’s not working in the slightest. She’s just pressing and forcing things too much, which leads to horrendous shooting nights like the 1-13 she produced in this game. She was open for a lot of them, but nothing would drop. When even Bird’s hopelessly struggling, Seattle know they’re in trouble.

The outstanding element for San Antonio in this game was their balance. No one played more than 28 minutes (important on the second night of a back-to-back) and they had five players who scored in double-digits. Adams only played 12 minutes for her 5-10 from the floor and 13 points, and they also got useful production from their other bigs. Jayne Appel looked comfortable defending Wauters and rotated the ball well offensively, while Ziomara Morrison had her best game so far as a WNBA player, producing 12 points in 15 minutes (albeit with most of her opportunities coming in fourth quarter garbage time). San Antonio are still going to get killed on the glass on occasion and have games where they shoot far too many jumpers, but development from that Adams/Appel/Morrison trio would be huge for the Silver Stars. They need production from the pivot.

—–

Meanwhile, there was a battle of the perfect teams going on in Tulsa. The Shock have been the wrong kind of perfect so far, finding a way to go 0-7 prior to this game despite a series of games that have gone down to the wire. They just haven’t been able to get over the hump quite yet. Unfortunately for Tulsa, their visitors were the 8-0 Minnesota Lynx, who’ve been performing just as well as last year, notwithstanding a couple of second-half collapses where they’ve nearly let big leads slip away. That’s not really the team you want to see across the floor when you’re trying to break a losing streak.

On the bright side for Tulsa, all-world guard Seimone Augustus was still out due to her quad injury, pushing Monica Wright into the starting lineup for the second straight game. Tulsa coach Gary Kloppenburg continues to tinker with his starting five as he searches for a successful rotation, and Scholanda Dorrell replaced Karima Christmas to open this game.

The one thing that Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve’s defensive system will occasionally give up is open three-pointers. The Lynx defenders are so intent on preventing penetration and helping on opponents threatening close to the basket that sometimes it’s just not possible to rotate back out in time to challenge the three. Early in this game, Tulsa were taking advantage of just that opportunity. Jennifer Lacy, Temeka Johnson, Riquna Williams and Christmas all hit threes in the opening quarter (Lacy had a couple), and it kept the Shock right in touch, despite the better ball movement and greater penetration that Minnesota were creating offensively. In fact, the Christmas three that closed the first quarter scoring gave Tulsa an unlikely 24-22 lead, and yet another bomb from Lacy pushed the advantage to 33-25 midway through the second. Reeve called a timeout to wake up her team, and suggest they might like to close out on Jen Lacy.

A 19-4 Lynx run streak was the near-inevitable result, as Minnesota began to realise that some effort would be necessary to come away with a victory – even against Tulsa. The defensive pressure from Minnesota increased, while their offensive execution continued to be far crisper that the Shock’s. The Lynx even tossed in a possession or two of zone defense to throw off the Shock’s rhythm, which is just as rare from a Reeve team as it is from one led by Brian Agler. Tulsa’s jumpshot accuracy was coming back down to earth, so the scoreline was swinging around. They did manage to hit a couple of shots to close the half, which held the score to 44-42 at the break.

Minnesota finally did some real damage in the third quarter. They’d shot 61% in the first half, but all the threes from Tulsa had allowed them to hang around. In the third, Maya Moore and Monica Wright took control offensively, while Tulsa’s scoring had dried up. The Shock simply couldn’t stay that hot from outside, and the Lynx naturally started to defend their perimeter jumpers more tightly. Now Moore was the one raining down threes, and the natural order was being restored. The Lynx led 70-58 at the end of the third, and the lead only grew as the fourth quarter progressed and the Shock lost heart. The 93-73 final score was a little harsh on the Shock after their first-half performance, but it reflects the gaping chasm in basic raw talent between these squads. Even without Augustus, Minnesota are on a whole ‘nother level.

In the absence of Minnesota’s typical scoring leader, Moore took it upon herself to be more aggressive offensively and fire away. Not that she’s typically shy anyway, but there seemed to be an extra level of determination to lead the offense on this occasion. As a result, Moore went 9-19 for 26 points (including 5-8 from three-point range). She was ably assisted by Wright, Candice Wiggins, Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Rebekkah Brunson, all of whom scored in double figures, while Lindsay Whalen chipped in 8 points and 10 assists. Once the Lynx woke up and kicked into gear, it was really no contest.

Tulsa were led by Lacy, 5-11 overall and 4-7 from three-point range. Besides that, there just weren’t enough offensive weapons, although at least Riquna Williams played after registering a ‘Did Not Play: Coach’s Decision’ the night before in Chicago. No explanation for that was offered by the team. After years (and years, and years) of being a terrible team picking high in multiple drafts, Minnesota have built the dominant squad that they now possess. Tulsa are still at the beginning of that process, and don’t yet have the talent. It’s going to take at least another draft or two before they can compete with teams like this.

 

Upcoming Games

Today (Sunday June 10th):

Chicago @ New York, 4pm ET

Atlanta @ Connecticut, 5pm ET

—–

Tomorrow (Monday June 11th):

None

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